Workshop Report "Is Terrorist Learning Different?"

January 27, 2020

On 21 and 22 November 2019, the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology hosted the workshop “Is Terrorist Learning Different?”, organized by Carolin Görzig, leader of the Max Planck Research Group “How ‘Terrorists’ Learn”, and post-docs Imad Alsoos, Michael Fürstenberg, and Florian Köhler. Experts coming from Europe, Tunisia, Mexico, the United States, and India discussed whether there are specific characteristics of terrorist actors, how internal and external dynamics shape their learning processes, and in what way different forms of learning – or the failure to learn – relate to successes and failures of terrorist groups. Moreover, a keynote speech by the institute’s founding director, Günther Schlee, on “Studying Evil” invited participants to reflect on the opportunities and limitations as well as on the ethics of researching the subject of terrorist learning.

Learning in a special context
Concerning the titular question of the workshop, participants mostly rejected the notion that the inherent characteristics and the learning of terrorist individuals or organizations are categorically different from that of other (licit or illicit) actors or groups. As was discussed extensively on the first day of the workshop, however, their development and learning processes are fundamentally influenced by interactions between specific internal dynamics and the external environment. In order to look inside the black box of “terrorist groups”, it is therefore more fruitful to focus on these interactions than to regard such organisations in isolation from their context.

The challenge of acting underground
While this context and the specific constellations of interactions can be vastly different, one aspect that is common to most terrorist actors is clandestinity: Terrorist groups operate largely underground – a situation that demands particular skills. Members of terrorist groups manoeuvre in situations in which contacts to the outside can easily turn into a threat. The situation of secrecy can also imply that actors have to master several, often contradictory, identity roles, potentially causing inner conflicts and dilemmas.

Reasons for radicalization
This raises the question of free choice: to what extent do individuals consciously and voluntarily decide to expose themselves to such delicate situations? If individuals who join terrorist groups are not inherently different from anybody else, it seems that it is rather their situation that is different. The often precarious situations of such individuals were discussed in workshop contributions focused on the personal dimension of joining violent organizations or committing individual acts of violence. In this regard, Nina Käsehage gave insights into the difficult situation of Salafi Kurds in Germany, who are torn between two identities that are almost impossible to reconcile. Wael Garnoui’s analysis of Anis Amri, the perpetrator of the Berlin Christmas market attack, showed the significance of socio-political grievances and the indifference of states toward their citizens as causes for radicalization.

In search of belonging
While Sheelagh Brady’s contribution on the transition of individuals between different types of violent organizations (gangs, militant groups, and the military) hinted at the role of a certain inclination to the use of violence, in combination with a rather opportunistic element that often determines what particular kind of violent organization individuals end up in, it also demonstrated the importance of the desire for a sense of belonging. Similarly, Almakan Orozobekova, who examined the pathways to becoming a foreign fighter in Kyrgyzstan, highlighted the role of social networks and peer groups for recruitment. The desire to belong to a peer group, an inclination for adventure, and a certain rebellious element, however, are all rather common among young people of a certain age, which points to some significance of the age factor, as seen also especially in Brady’s contribution.

Internal dynamics of organizations
At the group level, operating under conditions of secrecy limits free choice. Rigid ideologies, closed-group thinking and the need to limit contacts to the outside all have the effect that opposing views are frequently not heard. In this regard, a major question that was raised during the workshop and that goes beyond simplistic assumptions about different or absent learning was: What explains the differences in learning between different terrorist organizations? The discussions identified group-internal factors, including the question of the role of personality traits of the leadership, the follower base, leadership challenges, the role of organizational structures and ideology. The late ISIS leader al-Baghdadi was known for his insularity, as Nori Katagiri pointed out in his paper. Therefore, ISIS lacked the openness that would have helped the organization learn. Michael Fürstenberg advanced the discussion by demonstrating how concepts from organizational learning theory can be used to analyse Al-Qaeda’s transformation initiated by its leaders, leading to the organization changing to a more local and population-centric approach. In the same vein, Florian Köhler’s contribution illustrated that learning processes can be initiated not only by the leaders, but also on other levels of an organization, and that resulting leadership challenges can lead to factions splintering off. While the role of individuals in the learning process of an organization was highlighted, organizational dynamics equally play a role. Imad Alsoos showed how Hamas mobilizes internally and externally, offering a rare insight into the inner life of an organization. Katharina Siebert and Regine Schwab examined the puzzling fact that ideologically similar groups do not cooperate, which raises the question of whether one can speak of an ecology of terrorism in which similar groups occupy different niches. Ideology apparently plays an important role in groups’ learning processes and is connected to the capability of learning from their environment.

External conditions
Workshop participants also investigated the external factors that influence learning, including global events, the state, allies and enemies, and the prison environment. Global events frame the options of terrorist groups worldwide: The end of the Cold War impacted the IRA, for example, and the Arab Spring affected Al-Qaeda. The revolution of communication technology has heavily influenced the propaganda strategy of groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. As Boyan Hadzhiev demonstrated with an analysis of  Inspire and Dabiq (the online magazines of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, respectively), these groups vary with regard to whether their messages are more inward- or more outward-oriented, telling us something about their learning processes. The ability of clandestine terrorist groups to control their environment is severely limited, as they operate in a hostile environment characterized by their belligerent relationship with the state. This forces them to develop capacities to adapt to changes.

Flexible strategies
How terrorist groups adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the state was elucidated by Luis de la Calle. Many terrorist groups are more flexible than one might assume in choosing the right strategies, which raises the question of how they assess their environment and why some are able to more successfully adapt while others continue to follow strategies that are doomed to fail. Moreover, terrorist groups also learn from other terrorist groups, who may be either friends or enemies. According to Ari Weil, while terrorists learn through consuming instructive and ideological propaganda material, they also copy their enemies – a process that can be motivated by revenge. For example, a right-wing terrorist drove a vehicle into a crowd of people near Finsbury Park Mosque shortly after an Islamist had driven a vehicle into passers-by on London Bridge. One specific environment relevant for the topic of terrorism that was discussed is the prison. Self-education in prison was a major part in the deradicalization of groups like the IRA, the PKK, and ETA, as pointed out by Dieter Reinisch, providing a different perspective than the conventional notion that prisons are hotbeds of radicalization. When individuals get a second chance for learning, the role of the individual and its environment can be reassessed, as was also suggested by Melinda Holmes’s presentation, which drew the attention to the particular situation of women reintegrating in society after participation in violent extremism.

The crucial role of clandestinity
When looking at these internal and external conditions of learning, many parallels to other kinds of organizations can be drawn. Internal power dynamics, organizational procedures, relations between individuals, groups, and the wider popular base, as well as history and global events are relevant to all types of organizations, be they political or purely business-oriented. While the element of clandestinity seems quite central to terrorism, it was debated during the workshop whether other organizations do not also operate under conditions of secrecy. Luis de la Calle pointed out that clandestinity is what ultimately helps to define terrorism and state terrorism alike. The importance of a more nuanced view of violent organizations was also emphasized by Juhi Tyagi, who demonstrated how non-violent local activism and mass support, rather than terrorism, were crucial in sustaining the armed Maoist movement in India. Navigating situations of moving in and out of conditions of secrecy can have an effect on the success and longevity of militant organizations. However, while the distinctiveness of operating under conditions of secrecy as well as other internal and external factors discussed during the workshop can be debated, it may be the interaction of these elements that makes terrorist learning unique. For example, the clandestine environment of terrorism critically influences personalities and has an impact on organizational procedures.  

Researching political violence
In the last part of the workshop, a lecture by Günther Schlee stimulated the participants to reflect on their own role as researchers of political violence, in particular with regard to direct interactions with violent groups and individuals in the field. Using examples from a wealth of field-work experience, Schlee demonstrated that “studying evil comes with complications”: researchers have to navigate the difficult task of understanding perpetrators of violence with empathy yet without sympathy, and without exposing themselves to doubts about their positionality. Interviewing militants also raises ethical dilemmas concerning the safety of informants and researcher alike. The subsequent long and fruitful discussion, in which participants shared their own experiences and strategies on dealing with these questions, made it clear that the specific environment of terrorists impacts not only their own learning, but also the possibilities of learning about their learning.

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